Microsoft’s Lyncpin to UC

by Dave Michels

Today, Microsoft formally launched Lync. On one hand, it seems a bit strange to formally launch a product that is in it’s third generation, a launch that offered very little in not previously announced information. But on the other hand, Lync 2010 is so vastly different than its predecessors – why not do a formal launch. So – homerun or foul? at least a triple.

What I Really Liked

I thought Microsoft did a great job with today’s launch. It was impressive – and they created far more interest and excitement than generally associated with UC product announcements. I’ve been working on several Lync related projects and have been heads-down on Lync 2010 for several weeks now – meaning I wasn’t expecting many surprises, but there were a few.

Bill Gates: Having Bill Gates make a guest appearance was impressive. The Lync launch is clearly more than just version three of a understood and established product. Lync is positioned as a disruptive force in the UC space, and it will very likely deliver. Bill Gates doesn’t appear at very many Microsoft events like these. Although an in-person appearance would have been very nice, it seemed quite appropriate to appear via live/Lync video.  Very cool, but I would have been even more impressed if Steve Jobs showed up 🙂

Demo: Included in the launch was a demo, no surprise there. But avoiding one of my pet peeves, the demo was actually conducted by not one, but two, Vice Presidents. Finally! A technology so simple and so intuitive a VP can do it. I think the notion of a Chief Demonstration Officer is ridiculous, and I’ve written several times that technology designed for Joe knowledge worker should not require demonstrations be conducted by technical specialists. The two veeps involved in the demo were Chris Capossela, Senior Vice President in Microsoft’s Office division; and Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president for the Office Lync & Speech group (if you are wondering, Chris trumps Gurdeep).

B2C: I was surprised by the B2C angle of tying Windows Live Messenger into Lync. I knew about the tie – the new Lync 2010 client replaces both the Office Communicator and Windows Live clients. But I hadn’t really given much thought to the B2C or C2B angle. They took it even further and showed a glimpse of the future where the Xbox Kinect solution will soon integrate to Lync as well. B2C or C2B could be a huge potential differentiator. Skype, IBM, Polycom, Apple and others are all trying to figure out a way to get video from the living room to the enterprise. It’s clearly an important notion, albeit not easy to quantify or value at this time. We know the more communication options the better, and we know the home is not only where employees reside (and work), but customers too. Windows Live Messenger is something to reckon with, 300 million users, and it is the second most popular application on Facebook (second only to Farmville).

The Partner Ecosystem: Speeds, feeds, features, platforms, and functions are all important, but what will make Lync successful is its partner network. Gurdeep showed the Lync Ecosystem – enough to make any UC vendor envious. Every vendor wants to see their product in the center of an development firestorm, but it isn’t easy. The display was crowded and divided into three waves; development and infrastructure products, solution providers, and independent software vendors. One reason there were so many is because Lync has numerous APIs and extensibility options – the same tools that Microsoft used to extend Lync into Office are available to others.

What I Didn’t Like

The Lync solution is very strong. Impressively strong, and that is why I am not crazy about some totally unnecessary posturing. Two things in particular stood out that I think discounted the overall messaging behind Lync; non-proprietary and software based.

Non Proprietary:  There were several back handed statements made about Microsoft’s UC competitors which are evidently stuck in “the mainframe era”. Vendors that discount their phone system and make money on proprietary phones. Cisco, Avaya, Mitel, ShoreTel, and many others lead with proprietary phones – guilty as charged. However, proprietary is not a four letter word. Open Standards are great in concept and even better when all things are equal. In telephony there are some significant trade-offs. The features people often want in a phone system (particularly phone top features) are difficult to deliver in basic SIP phones. That’s exactly why Microsoft also uses proprietary devices – phones that they designed and license to Polycom and Aastra to manufacture. And just because they aren’t branded Microsoft, doesn’t mean associated revenue isn’t headed to Redmond. I don’t fault Microsoft for using proprietary phones, I fault them for poking fun at their competitors for using proprietary phones. The proprietary phones can only be used with Microsoft Lync. Even worse, Microsoft’s Lync solution does not support SIP endpoints while its “mainframe era” competitors Cisco, Avaya, Mitel, ShoreTel do.

Software Based: Microsoft makes a big deal about its solution being software based (as opposed to hardware based). There is no argument here- well done. The voice industry, at one time, was largely hardware focused. Many of us still use the terms “ports” to describe the size of a system. Of course, ports went away a decade ago, with TDM. The reality is all of Microsoft’s major telephony competitors are also software based solutions. Most of them offer their “PBX” on industry standard hardware – and many of them offer their solution on a disc. Microsoft harping on the competitive benefits of a software based solution is equivalent to GM calling Ford the maker of horseless carriages.

One other failure worthy of mention was the whiteboard demo. The one non-VP demo participant could not join the riveting how-we-work example. The attempt was actually pretty slick – an interactive whiteboard session with three people/locations. The actual “story” behind the demo was ludicrous, but sounded good at first. A Microsoft meeting about Office layouts (Microsoft Office – you thinking software or chairs?). Yes, they used the Lync skills search feature to find a Microsoft office furniture expert that would just happen to have appropriately sized icons to join the office layout whiteboarding discussion. Lync did find an ‘available’ expert, who did have the icons, but didn’t have the right technology to join the meeting and solve the problem. Oops. 

In Conclusion

Lync is big, How big it will be is unclear, but it’s clearly big. There is a lot of functionality in this product. It has lots of complexity behind a deceivingly simple 200 Mb client. It has lots of partners that are rapidly filling lots of roles (holes?). It is both a walled garden and best of breed play at the same time. It is amazing how far it has come from LCS, but at the same time it has a way to go (really, no iPhone or Windows Phone 7 clients at the big launch?). It is clearly going to disrupt the hell out of some established players, but it and its cousins Exchange and SharePoint are simultaneously being disrupted. It is clearly a product worthy of respect, and clearly a product that will stir things up. 

On a final note, I must commend the Microsoft team on the new branding. Lync is a far better name than LCS, OCS, or CS (how the product lived through four names in three major releases is still a mystery). Lync works. I like the notion of a family name that represents the (currently) three products (Lync 2010, Lync Server 2010, and Lync Online). Short, simple, and loosely relevant.

Prior post on name change.